Young American team faces uphill battle
Andre Dirrell has heard the talk, and knows the expectations are low.
The U.S. boxing team is too young, too inexperienced and not hungry enough. American boxers will be lucky to win a medal or two in Athens against the talented Cubans and tough Russians.
"I just sit back and laugh at that," Dirrell said. "I know we have a strong team. I see six or seven medals for us."
Dirrell could be excused for his optimism. He might be the most naturally talented member of the U.S. team, a 165-pounder with speed and power and a legitimate shot at a medal.
The problem for American boxers in recent Olympics, though, hasn't been talent. The gold medal just seems to mean more to other countries.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. might be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today, but he couldn't win a gold medal in 1996.
U.S. boxers have won only two gold medals in the last three Olympics, and were shut out four years ago in Sydney despite having top pro prospects like Rocky Juarez, Jeff Lacy and Jermain Taylor on the team.
For the first time in 52 years, there were no American boxing gold medals, and just two silver and two bronze.
"The thing I feel strongly is our boxers aren't hungry enough," said Dr. Robert Voy, president of USA Boxing. "Things are too easy in the United States and the pros tantalize them with all sorts of promises of fame and fortune. They don't really care as much."
If that's to change in Athens, coach Basheer Abdullah has his work cut out for him. He's got two teenagers on the team, and only nine boxers overall. Americans failed to qualify in two weight classes, further dampening medal chances.
As a group, the U.S. team has little international experience, though Dirrell beat Cuba's Yordanis Despaigne for the gold medal in the Olympic test event in Athens in May.
"Our athletes are so young and we only keep them around one Olympics which puts us behind the whole world," Basheer said. "Not having the experience is the biggest handicap."
Some former Olympians believe other things work against the team, too, from judges who don't like Americans to those who favor less flashy styles.
"The point system is made for the European style and I believe the judges are biased too," said Taylor, who won a bronze in Sydney. "It's in our blood to be cocky, and they don't like that."
Just like four years ago, the U.S. team lacks experience but has plenty of exuberance. It includes a 17-year-old 106-pounder in Rau'Shee Warren, and a very focused lightweight in Vicente Escobedo.
Escobedo usually has friends and family from Woodland, Calif., follow him everywhere he fights, and it will be no different in Athens where about 15 people will travel to see him in action.
"I'm going to go out and win a gold medal," Escobedo said. "That two weeks determines the rest of your life and I really know what I want. When I set my mind on something, I do everything in my power to get it."
If the U.S. team is to do well, though, it may have to rely on a pair of Andres -- Dirrell and light heavyweight Andre Ward.
Ward hasn't lost since 1998 and has won two U.S. championships, while Dirrell, who was fighting at 125 pounds only three years ago, brought up the speed and dazzling skills to the 165-pound class.
Dirrell's win over Despaigne in Athens was crucial in building some confidence for the American team against the group of Cuban veterans. In Athens, Dirrell believes he cannot only win, but win over the crowd.
"I'll make the crowd love me," he said. "They won't love me when I come out, but they'll love me when I leave."
As always, Cuba is expected to be the strongest team in Athens. But Russia won't be far behind, and the former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan will be in the mix.
"I think the rest of the world is catching up to the Cubans," Abdullah said. "They're not the dominant team that they were in the past."
In the past, some U.S. boxers seemed intimidated fighting Cubans who might have been a decade older than them. But they also failed to adapt to the international style of boxing, which means throwing punches -- and lots of them.
"The Eastern Europeans come back to the Olympics over and over again while as Americans all we get is one chance," said Taylor, who lost in the semifinals to a boxer from Kazakhstan. "They never give up, it's their bread and butter. If I could fight the guy I lost to again I'd beat him hands down."
The U.S. team plans to arrive in Athens 10 days early to train at the American College and acclimate to the time and the new surroundings. Tagging along not far behind them will be assorted managers and promoters trying to get the inside path on signing the best of the group.
That has proven a problem in past Olympics, with boxers segregated from each other by rival promoters and private coaches who offer advice.
"We wish they would work with us a little more and give us the leeway to prepare our athletes," Abdullah said. "They're all businessmen so they have their own mentality and ways of doing things, but we'd like for them to understand our situation and complete our mission to represent our country."
Dirrell thinks that will happen, and Voy is growing increasingly optimistic himself.
"We've got a stronger team than I originally thought when they were chosen," Voy said. "I can see the possibility of a gold medal, maybe two. If we can get a couple of silvers with that we'll have done better than in the last 20 years."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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